Young Ambedkar’s emerging academic understanding of caste was helping him give systematic expression to his many prior years of the lived experience of systemic caste prejudice. Alongside and as an impetus to this were also his widening experiences on issues of race, class, and gender. To some extent, this new exposure was a result of his coursework at Columbia. But much of this exposure came more experientially, from treading the streets of Upper Manhattan and Harlem.

Describing his usual New York day, Ambedkar emphasised that the vast majority of his time, some 18 hours daily, was spent on campus, either attending lectures and seminars, or otherwise working in Columbia University’s magnificent and exceptionally stocked Low Library. But he often ate off campus, opting to eat only one meal per day to save both time and money. For food he spent, on average, $1.10 daily, which would buy him a cup of coffee, two muffins, and either a meat or a fish dish. He was on a tight budget. New York City living was not cheap, and he had to send money home to his family as well. But that was not all. His voracious reading habit, cultivated earlier in his life under the shadow of the Bombay-Gothic tower of Elphinstone, had only grown stronger atop the grand staircase of the Roman–neoclassical library of Columbia.

Ambedkar was now in the first stage of what would turn out to be a lifelong obsession with collecting books. He spent all the leisure time that he had browsing Manhattan’s numerous second-hand bookshops and sidewalk stalls, amassing a personal library of some 2,000 volumes over his three-year stay.

The quest for books led young Ambedkar out of Upper Manhattan down to 42nd Street on Fifth Avenue, where the imposing Beaux-Arts-style New York Public Library had recently opened its doors, and opened them to all, including black people and women. So impressed was Ambedkar with the public library that upon learning of the death of Sir Pherozeshah Mehta in Bombay, and the Bombay municipality’s plan to prominently erect his statue, Ambedkar shot off a provocative letter from New York to The Bombay Chronicle, the English-language weekly that Mehta had himself launched in 1910. Ambedkar, fresh from another inspiring visit to the New York Public Library, argued in his letter that erecting a public library in Bombay instead of a “trivial and unbecoming” statue would be a far better tribute to the memory of this great man:

It is unfortunate that we have not as yet realised the value of the library as an institution in the growth and advancement of a society. But this is not the place to dilate upon its virtues. That an enlightened public as that of Bombay should have suffered so long to be without an up-to-date public library is nothing short of disgrace and the earlier we make amends for it the better. There are some private libraries in Bombay operating independently by themselves. If these ill-managed concerns be mobilised into one building, built out of the Sir PM Mehta memorial fund and called after him, the city of Bombay shall have achieved both these purposes.  

The week following Pherozeshah Mehta’s death in Bombay, Booker T Washington died in Tuskegee, Alabama. Washington, who had been born into slavery, was the most prominent southern black activist of his day. As the principal of the Tuskegee Institute and author of a bestselling autobiography, Up from Slavery, Washington’s work and writings would have been well known to Ambedkar. Indeed, he would have heard his name prior to reaching America, given that his patron, Maharajah Sayajirao Gaekwad, had long before taken to referring to the great social reformer Jyotirao Phule, author of Gulamgiri as “India’s Booker T Washington”.

The streets of Upper Manhattan were beginning to buzz with a new black consciousness that expressed itself not only sociopolitically – for example with the writings and activism of WEB Du Bois and the National Negro Committee (which would soon become the NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) – but also aesthetically, with emerging literary, theatrical, and musical innovations that would set the stage for the later Harlem Renaissance.

Besides his letter to The Bombay Chronicle, Ambedkar sent off numerous letters to family and friends in India during his stay in New York. The letters show that Ambedkar was as attuned to issues regarding gender as he was to those regarding race. One worth mentioning was addressed to a friend of his father, a retired jamadar of the Indian Army, also from the Mahar caste. In it, he implored the recipient – who was the father of a young girl gaining notoriety for having made it all the way to the fourth standard in school, unheard of for a Mahar girl – to preach the idea of education to anyone from their community who was willing to listen. Ambedkar wrote that he should continue the education of his daughter and that the entire community would progress more quickly if boys and girls were educated side by side, with no difference between them.

This letter, too, can be seen to reflect the environment Ambedkar now found himself in. For, alongside the emergence of a new black consciousness, New York City was also buzzing with the tireless activism of suffragists demanding the enfranchisement of women in America. And some of the most dynamic of these suffragists were young Ambedkar’s fellow Columbia classmates – and some, as luck would have it, turned out to be his favourite professors.

Excerpted with permission from Becoming Babasaheb: The Life and Times of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Birth to Mahad (1891-1929), Aakash Singh Rathore, HarperCollins India.